Review by New York Times Review
IF MYSTERY NOVELS APPEAL to the credulous child in me, true crime stories speak to my inner voyeur. In reading this current batch of books, I've walked alongside a prisoner on her way to her execution, learned how to poison a wineglass and watched a king's mistress do away with her rival. And that's only from the first book on my list: CITY OF LIGHT, CITY OF POISON: Murder, Magic, and the First Police Chief of Paris (Norton, $26.95), Holly Tucker's stylish study of crimes committed by the high and mighty during the 72-year reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV. Casual crime was so rampant in 1667 that the king named Nicolas de la Reynie as lieutenant general - in effect, Europe's first chief of police - and charged him with imposing law, order and civility on the rowdy city. Reynie went about his duties with admirable efficiency. He cracked down on suspected criminals, introduced streetlights to discourage thieves, established sanitary regulations (no more urinating in the streets and dumping chamber pots out the window) and took over the management of the overcrowded and dangerous prisons. But Reynie's powers stopped at the palace gates. There was nothing he could do about the criminal behavior of the nobles in the king's court - or about the king's own involvement in a scandalous series of murders known as the Affair of the Poisons. Tucker writes with gusto about Marie-Madeleine d'Aubray, the marquise de Brinvilliers, who dosed her father and brothers with arsenic for forcibly separating her from her rogue lover. For these vengeful deeds, the marquise had her head chopped offin a spectacular public execution. Tucker also finds high drama in the exploits of Catherine Voisin, a fortuneteller who became "the most notorious poisoner in Paris since the marquise de Brinvilliers." Poisoning a bouquet of flowers was one of Voisin's wicked methods of delivering death, but infusing articles of clothing with a toxic substance was also effective. One of her cunning schemes, happily aborted, was to kill Mlle. de Fontanges, a mistress of the king, by selling her a pair of poisoned gloves. For her years of service to the royalty, Voisin was gruesomely tortured and burned alive. Lest they sound quaint, the noxious potions sold to "men and women who wished to prune their family trees," as Tucker delicately puts it, were brewed in caldrons that also produced "tiny charred bones." Toads and snakes were common ingredients, but fowl were also fair game as test subjects, and many a chicken, turkey and pigeon gave up its life. To the author's chagrin, infanticide was also borne out by research. Nothing, it seems, was too great a sacrifice to make for the pleasures of this hedonistic age. If the 17th century was enamored of highborn villains, the Victorian age admired master sleuths with uncanny deductive skills, like Émile Gaboriau's wily French police detective, Monsieur Lecoq, and, of course, Arthur Conan Doyle's immortal Sherlock Holmes. In his lively literary biography ARTHUR AND SHERLOCK: Conan Doyle and the Creation of Holmes (Bloomsbury, $27), Michael Sims traces the real-life inspiration for the first "scientific detective" to the renowned Dr. Joseph Bell, a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh celebrated for his uncanny diagnostic observational skills. His methods were "quite easy, gentlemen," Dr. Bell would assure his students. "If you will only observe and put two and two together," you, too, could deduce a man's profession, family history and social status from the way he buttons his waistcoat. Consulting detectives like Holmes are the heroic role models of a long-ago age. Modern detectives work out of police departments, where they sometimes find themselves investigating their fellow officers. BLUE ON BLUE: An Insider's Story of Good Cops Catching Bad Cops (Scribner, $28) is an exposé of the secretive work of the N.Y.P.D.'s Internal Affairs Bureau, written (with Gordon Dillow) by Charles Campisi, chief of that agency for almost 18 years. In police procedurals, bent cops live in fear of being called before the I.A.B., an awesomely powerful arm of the department charged with dealing with the dirt kicked up by crooked cops and questionable police practices. At first, Campisi writes with the voice of a Noo Yawker trying to be polite to visitors from another planet. But when he loosens up he's enlightening - and entertaining - on the procedures of this shadowy agency, feared by many, admired by those who work for the I.A.B. Enough about the cops. Let's get to the killers. In THE AXEMAN OF NEW ORLEANS: The True Story (Chicago Review, $26.99) Miriam C. Davis resurrects a madman with a meat cleaver (the ax came later) who made his first attack on a summer night in 1910. His victim was an Italian grocer who survived the assault. Over the next 10 years, he attacked and robbed a string of grocers, mainly Italian, and their wives. Some of them did not survive. In the middle of his rampage, the Axeman sent a letter to The New Orleans Times-Picayune, declaring himself "a fell demon from the hottest hell" and promising to spare anyone listening to jazz on the designated night of his next attack. This being New Orleans, the city was ablaze with lights and jazz music all through the night. Davis speculates that the Axeman, determined by the police to be a career criminal named Joseph Mumfre who was shot and killed by one of his intended victims, actually slipped through the police dragnet and lived to kill again. It's a shaky claim, but well argued. And who knows? As Davis reflects: "Perhaps in some obscure small-town newspaper there's a story of an intruder caught fleeing an Italian grocery in the middle of the night after attacking the proprietor and his wife." Killers are rarely as colorful as the Axeman; they're more likely to be nondescript creeps like Lonnie Franklin Jr., the villain of THE GRIM SLEEPER: The Lost Women of South Central (Counterpoint, $26). This upsetting account of a Los Angeles serial killer, written with passion by Christine Pelisek, an investigative crime reporter who spent 10 years working the case, blurts out a hard truth that no one wants to acknowledge: "Body-dump cases" aren't sexy. L.A. loves its gaudy killers and gives them fun names like the Dating Game Killer and the Skid Row Slasher. But nobody bothers to baptize nonentities like Franklin, who killed an estimated 38 black, crack-addicted prostitutes since 2002 (many more, if you go back to the '90s and count the ones in Fresno) and dumped their remains all over the county. As "the most invisible and vulnerable class of people," dead prostitutes are small potatoes when you consider that in 2006 there were six serial killers preying on the same 51-square-mile area of South Central L.A. Pelisek works up a froth of outrage about this and tries to restore dignity to some of the victims by drawing sympathetic and carefully detailed life histories for each and every one of them. The sad thing is, the recurring pattern of their lives - the unhappy home, the runaway escape, the demanding pimp, the drug addiction - destroys their individuality and makes each victim indistinguishable from all the others. Although women make ideal victims, not all women are born equal in the eyes of true crime writers. Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi touches on that raw nerve in the criminal justice system in UGLY PREY: An Innocent Woman and the Death Sentence That Scandalized Jazz Age Chicago (Chicago Review, $26.99). By revisiting the forgotten 1923 case of Sabella Nitti, the first woman sentenced to be hanged in Chicago, she exposes the real reason behind that harshest of legal judgments. Unlike those blond babes (like Roxie Hart, the floozy in the musical "Chicago") who were cleared of homicide by all-male jury trials, Sabella, an Italian immigrant who was as plain as a mud fence, was destined for the gallows. "It was the defendant's looks, most women agreed, that brought in the guilty verdict. The juries in Chicago were biased, and a beautiful woman . . . got away with murder, but women like Sabella got the noose," Lucchesi notes. Poor, illiterate and unable to understand English, Sabella was accused, without proof, of murdering her abusive husband. But in the unkind words of one female reporter, she was a "dumb, crouching, animal-like peasant" with dark, leathery skin and greasy hair. In Sabella's own cynical judgment, "Pretty woman always not guilty." Grace Humiston was an advocate for an earlier generation of lost and forgotten women, and her inspiring story demands a hearing. In MRS. SHERLOCK HOLMES: The True Story of New York City's Greatest Female Detective and the 1917 Missing Girl Case That Captivated a Nation (St. Martin's, $27.99), Brad Ricca makes a heroic case for Humiston, a lawyer and United States district attorney who forged a career of defending powerless women and immigrants. She took on causes like the exploitation of illiterate Italian laborers and the sexual enslavement of young girls. For her dogged work on the 1917 case of a missing girl that the police had given up on, the newspapers called her "Mrs. Sherlock Holmes." With the snow coming down on a bitter cold day in February, 18-year-old Ruth Cruger lefther family's home in Harlem to take her ice skates to a repair shop and promptly disappeared. Pretty young girls who go missing put the police on high alert and make the New York tabloid press go nuts. A month later, the police found a witness who saw Ruth get into a taxicab with a young man. After that, the trail went cold. But Humiston persevered, tracing her to a cellar where a local gang kept girls bound for the South American white slave trade. Yes! You can read it here: There really was a South American white slave trade, and crusaders like Grace Humiston really did rescue young girls from "a fate worse than death." Authors of true crime books have made a cottage industry out of analyzing what makes killers tick. Michael Cannell gives credit where credit is due in INCENDIARY: The Psychiatrist, the Mad Bomber, and the Invention of Criminal Profiling (Minotaur, $26.99) by profiling one of the pioneers, Dr. James A. Brussel, a New York psychiatrist who specialized in the criminal mind. In 1920, a horse-drawn wagon carrying 100 pounds of dynamite pulled up on Wall Street and exploded, killing 38 people and igniting a raging fire that swept down the street and sent hundreds of pedestrians running for their lives. The bomber was never caught, and "for the first time the word terrorism gained currency in the American vocabulary." The concept of domestic terrorism flared up anew in 1951, when a "mad bomber" who signed his work F.P. set offa bomb in the so-called whispering gallery of Grand Central Terminal, right outside the famed Oyster Bar. With an uncanny eye for locations sure to unnerve New Yorkers, F.P. set offdevices at the Paramount Theater, an old movie palace in Times Square; the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue; the Port Authority Bus Terminal; and in the lobby of Con Edison headquarters. (It turned out that F.P. had a legitimate beef with Con Ed.) After 28 attacks, Dr. Brussel, a Freudian psychiatrist who ministered to patients at Creedmoor state mental hospital, used "reverse psychology," a precursor of criminal profiling, to identify features of the bomber - his "sexuality, race, appearance, work history and personality type." Aside from an unseemly fight over the $26,000 reward money, the case was a genuine groundbreaker in criminal forensics. But enough about the good guys. Let's get back to the killers. Personally, I am partial to historical legends like "The Greatest Criminal of This Expiring Century," the man who terrorized Chicago during the 1893 World's Fair. "The Archfiend of the Age," to give him another of his many sobriquets, was said to have murdered "hundreds" of tourists who came for the World's Fair by luring them into his "Murder Castle," with its many secret passages and torture chambers. In H. H. HOLMES: The True History of the White City Devil (Skyhorse, $26.99), Adam Selzer concedes (a bit reluctantly, it seems) that it's all hogwash, tall tales aggregated by the newspapers out of gossip and rumor. Although Holmes confessed to 20 murders (and several aborted attempts), he was only ever suspected of a single murder, and those unseen rooms were probably for warehousing stolen furniture. Psychologists and criminologists promptly dismissed Holmes's detailed confession of his crimes, but his lurid storytelling made for stimulating reading. ("I cut his body into pieces that would pass through the door of the stove.") And the case continues to fascinate, as indicated by the huge success of Erik Larson's "The Devil in the White City." Let's end this on a classy note, by returning to Paris during la Belle Époque, when everyone knew how to dress. In THE COURTESAN AND THE GIGOLO: The Murders in the Rue Montaigne and the Dark Side of Empire in Nineteenth-Century Paris (Stanford University, cloth, $85, paper, $24.95), Aaron Freundschuh rings the graveyard church bells for a refined, if corrupt fin de siècleworld that passed away with a sigh. When the Paris police prefecture got word in March 1887 of a triple homicide on the Rue Montaigne, he knew what he had - yet another senseless murder of women from the Parisian demimonde. But this time attention had to be paid, because one of the victims, Madame de Montille, was a courtesan belonging to "an ethereal rank" of kept women known for their professional skills and fabulous wealth. The level of butchery linked the killings to a series of unsolved homicides that began eight years earlier. Had Jack the Ripper not made his dramatic appearance a year later, Freundschuh convincingly argues, the courtesan killings would have entered into the historical annals. These atrocities are every bit as disturbing as the Ripper killings, and the images of the victims should be approached with caution. For that matter, all true crime books should be approached with caution because they lack the gauzy perspective of fiction. But the hazards of the genre are worth it, because for all the imaginative thrills of a tall tale, nothing beats a true story. What's a great true crime book for summer vacation? "In Erik Larson's adept hands, the story of a long-ago serial killer in 'The Devil in the White City' reads like a gut-pummeling horror film. Readers are made to feel unsettled and uplifted." -MICHAEL CANNELL
Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [June 11, 2017]
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review
Freundschuh, a history professor at CUNY, expertly integrates broader geopolitical themes into a compelling true crime story about a series of now-obscure murders that at the time were the talk of Paris. The narrative begins in 1887 with the bloody slaughter of Madame de Montille, a high-class prostitute, and two members of her household, presumed to be the latest in a string of murders targeting "women of the Parisian demimonde." The arrest a few days later of an Egyptian immigrant named Enrico Pranzini garnered international media attention. The story of the investigation, Pranzini's apprehension, his eventual trial, and its dramatic resolution are enthralling, and the context for those events gives this work contemporary relevance. The political fallout from the Pranzini case included a push for tighter immigration controls and increased insecurity in the French homeland, even as the Third Republic's imperial ambitions thrived. This well-reasoned analysis is eminently readable and accessible for those with absolutely no background in the period. (Jan.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.